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Residents of Transit-Oriented Development Say "No" to Transit

What happens when a neighborhood is transit-ready but its residents are transit-averse?

See that expansive patch of grass? That's where the light rail was supposed to go. But the residents of King Farm, a 440-acre community in the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C. who knowingly moved into this transit-ready development have decided they don't actually want the transit. In fact, a city council member and King Farm resident said the proposed light rail (which the community was designed around) would bring "no benefits" to the neighborhood while being "incredibly disruptive."

Such a reaction doesn't come as a complete surprise. A few years ago, I sat around a table with developers to plan a new housing development in Florida. Some of us were eager to make that community less car-dependent, others less so. My colleague and I presented several design options that would encourage people to walk and get to know their neighbors. One was the creation of a central location where residents would come to pick up their mail; another was a neighborhood cafe as an alternative to the proposed drive-thru Starbucks in a strip mall on the outskirts of town. As we were showing renderings, we were interrupted by a member of the team who said with no small hint of frustration in his voice, "Sorry, but you can't design for the way you want people to behave."

He had a point. People do tend to take the elevator rather than the stairs or choose to drive half a block to drop their children off for playdates at the neighbors'. But that does seem to be changing. Numerous studies suggest that increasing numbers of folks want more walkable communities and smaller homes in denser, more urban-like settings. And King Farm succeeds in providing nearly all of those things and more: mixed use development, a variety of housing types, green space, and (almost) transit. It's won numerous awards and accolades for exemplifying the best in smart growth.

One assumes that residents of King Farm moved here knowing the plans were in place for transit and it's not clear how it became a matter for debate. The almost silver lining is that the community isn't dismissing transit outright but rather is proposing that the light rail system runs around the development rather than through it as originally designed.

The lesson here? "If the residents see “no benefit,” what’s the point of designing for transit, exactly?" says Kaid Benfield, who writes about the intersections between development, community, and the environment. As he explains in his post on the Sustainable Cities Collective site, "'Transit-oriented' or 'transit-ready' may not mean squat if the transit isn’t fully committed."

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